When U.S. Presidents leave office, the sudden shift to retirement is often difficult. Some find ways to make the most of it, reinventing their persona—as in the case of Jimmy Carter (though he does seem determined to undermine himself by meddling too much in foreign affairs). Others have spent the rest of their lives rehabilitating damaged images—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind.
But seldom has a man left the corridors of power and managed to actually retire in the way George W. Bush has. He is, of course, back in the news these days because of the death of Osama Bin Laden, but clearly #43 is far from comfortable with the episodic attention. His comments have been appropriate and gracious, but it is clear that he prefers the shadows of a quiet post-Presidency to even a moment basking in the glow of victory—even if that victory for the nation is in large part creditable to him.
In fairness, it was a nice gesture on the part of President Obama to invite his predecessor to the recent ceremony at Ground Zero in Manhattan. In fact, it was even a bit unusual. Franklin Roosevelt ignored Herbert Hoover when he dedicated the dam on the Colorado River in September of 1935, even though FDR’s predecessor had been vitally connected to the project from his days as an engineer and as Secretary of Commerce. In fact, in an act of thinly veiled pettiness, Mr. Roosevelt changed the name from Hoover Dam to Boulder Dam (this was reversed by Harry Truman who developed a friendly relationship with the man Roosevelt feared and despised).
Richard Nixon pretty much ignored his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, in the first months of his Presidency when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. The 37th President talked to the three-man crew by phone from the Oval Office. Then he made his way to the Pacific to meet the heroic trio on the ship recovering their space capsule. He called it “the greatest day since creation,” though his good friend Billy Graham reminded him about Easter and Christmas. But no call went out to Johnson’s ranch in Texas, despite the fact that the whole push to go to the moon had taken place under him and his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. In fact, JFK had made LBJ the point person for the initiative back in 1961.
So, it was very kind of Barack Obama to reach out to former President Bush. It was also politically astute. This is especially true in light of the obvious connections between the operational success of the mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan and some of the very policies and procedures set up by George W. Bush. We all remember those policies being vehemently disparaged by then candidate Obama.
More than seventy years ago, an American clergyman visiting London, England told Winston Churchill that he had the perfect epitaph for Adolf Hitler from an Old Testament Scripture: “I will make thy grave; for thou art vile.” (Nahum 1:14 KJV) The Prime Minister replied, “Hear, Hear!” The epitaph seems appropriate for Bin Laden, as well.
But instead of inching toward center stage, which would seem to be the typical response of a political animal, George W. Bush has determined to maintain his low profile. This is because of something that many of his detractors would never ascribe to him—humility.
George W. Bush, a humble man? Yes. Confident? Sure—cocky at times? You bet, although unlike some politicians it is not likely he was comfortable seeing himself as the smartest guy in the room. Underneath it all is a sense of propriety, the kind of thing ingrained in a person from youth. Remember his father, George H.W. Bush, and the unwillingness to gloat or grandstand while Soviet communism collapsed across a continent? Frankly, the Bush family has a lot of character and class.
Sure, during his time in office there were statements born of bravado, including that famous “mission accomplished” stunt, but Bush’s post-presidency has been a peaceful self-imposed exile. I think it highlights the real possibility that W. might not be a political animal after all.
Most people aspire to office because they want to “be” something. A few, in contrast, seek leadership roles in order to “do” something—and when that job is done, they move on with their lives. In my opinion, George W. Bush wanted to do something. He had already arrived at who he was.
Much of what was criticized for eight years as arrogance might be better described as bold decisiveness. Unlike his successor, George W. Bush was quite comfortable making decisions in a “Truman-esque” kind of way. History will ultimately judge whether particular decisions were good or bad, but he had no problem making them.
And he has no problem relinquishing that role to another, even if that means the credit due him falls to someone else. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that decisions were made and the job was done.
The record will continue to bear out that the clock began ticking for Bin Laden in the hours following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Bush started that clock and made decisions all along—to engage the enemy, to pursue leads even via controversial methods, and to set up a mechanism to bring those he always referred to as “evil doers” to justice.
And it means that President George W. Bush’s legacy is secure when it comes to issues of national security. It also means that he doesn’t need a photo op to prove it.